Calgary

Rumours of superspreader wedding hurt northeast Calgary businesses as infection fears rise

Businesses in northeast Calgary say they’re being harmed by rumours and bad information about COVID-19 cases being spread on social media.

Upper northeast Calgary leads Alberta in active cases right now

Beware of the COVID-19 rumour mill, pleads Calgary businesses negatively impacted by social media

Calgary

28 days agoVideo
1:27
Several store owners affected by unfounded rumours on social media about coronavirus in the northeast are speaking out. 1:27

Businesses in northeast Calgary say they're being harmed by rumours and bad information about COVID-19 cases on social media.

As cases rise in Alberta, it's the upper northeast of Calgary — one of Alberta Health's 132 local geographic areas — that has consistently seen the highest number of new active COVID cases. It has more than double the number of cases than the next area on the province's list, which is currently Edmonton-Castle Downs, which has 211 cases.

Right now, there are 424 active cases in the upper northeast area.

A snapshot of the active COVID-19 cases by health district in Calgary as of Nov. 10. (CBC)

As cases rise, so does the concern about daily activities and the risk of catching COVID.

Rumours about a "superspreader" wedding taking place at one of northeast Calgary's popular banquet halls fuelled an online post last week that disseminated across Facebook and other social media. 

On Oct. 20, Alberta Health confirmed an outbreak linked to a wedding in the city but wouldn't comment on specifics about cases or the location due to patient confidentiality.

At the time, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said guests at the wedding did nothing intentionally wrong and were doing their best to follow guidance.

A floor sign at a northeast ethnic supermarket urges shoppers to keep their distance. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The post circulating online by a northeast resident claimed that wedding took place in the northeast and urged people to stay away from several businesses in the area as a result.

It named nearby grocery stores and restaurants as places to avoid.

The online post talked about infected people shopping in certain areas and advised people to avoid the area for two to three weeks. It was shared extensively.

Copies of that post and similar posts were shared on other apps and social media channels, and businesses say they saw the impact immediately with customers disappearing.

"Somebody sent me a WhatsApp last week with a rumour there were 49 people infected by COVID-19 after a wedding in the northeast," said Murtaza Saroya, owner of Ramadan Catering in the Castleridge Plaza.

"It said don't go to this area, it's dangerous. Don't go to this store and that store, and it spread very fast," said Saroya.

Syed Mukhtar, owner of Khan Caterer Ltd., says business was down on the weekend, right after a social media post urged South Asian shoppers to avoid stores at a plaza near a popular wedding venue. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Saroya said friends and customers started calling, asking if his business was safe, making a link between a wedding that might have taken place in the area and the safety of local businesses, purely based on their proximity to a possible venue.

"We lost business. On the weekend we were very quiet, maybe 70 per cent down," said Saroya.

 

He says other business owners around him have been seeing the same thing.

"We are taking all the precautions by AHS. We are trying our best to keep people safe. The rumours are not good, very bad. We are struggling already with this COVID situation," Saroya said.

The business next door, Khan Caterer, a Pakistani take-out and catering business, has also seen a big drop in customers since the rumours started.

"Almost 60 per cent of the parking lot was empty at the weekend," said owner Syed Mukhtar. 

"We have been in crisis. Businesses here are already in trouble, deep trouble. The people at this wedding could be living anywhere, different quarters of Calgary, not at these shops," said Mukhtar.

Mukhtar says there is a need to educate people on how to take safety precautions rather than tell them to avoid businesses. He says every day he has to tell customers who walk into his business to wear a mask.

The nearby Royal Paan restaurant says business there has also been affected by the rumours of COVID-infected shoppers and businesses in the area, with some customers staying away. 

None of the businesses being named have had any COVID cases and say they are abiding by AHS guidelines, like making sure social distancing is taking place, providing hand sanitizer and asking customers to wear masks.

OK Food and Produce in Falconridge is one the stores mentioned in recent social media posts urging people to avoid certain businesses or areas to avoid catching COVID. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

They say even if the superspreader wedding did take place somewhere nearby, that doesn't mean businesses in the vicinity are affected by COVID or unsafe to visit.

As well as restaurants and take-aways, the northeast's large South Asian population does lots of its shopping at small ethnic grocery stores and food outlets dotted around the quadrant. It's a big part of life. 

Many of those stores are busy right now with Diwali promotions and sales, ahead of the big Hindu festival in November. It's a bad time to lose customers.

One grocery store named as a business to stay away from in a social media post is OK Food and Produce, also known as OK General, an East Indian grocery store that's been operating in the city for 30 years.

"It's sad that small business are targeted by these rumours and false information," said Harmeet Boparai, speaking for her uncle who owns the store.

"Whether there was a wedding in the area or not is kind of irrelevant because it's not linked to the business at all. We do everything we need to do to follow the AHS guidelines," said Boparai.

Boparai says business was slow on the weekend as the rumours spread.

"It was quiet. People have been calling every day almost on the hour and we know that people are scared and likely it's going to affect us this week as well," she said.

Farther north, in Saddle Ridge, Indian grocery store Fruiticana published its own social media post addressing rumours and trying to inform customers after being incorrectly named as a place to avoid due to a COVID outbreak at that store on social media.

Jagdeep Kaur Gill says the Fruiticana grocery store had to publish its own posts to combat online rumours about COVID-19 cases there. Gill says people in the northeast need to stick with trusted sources of information and think before they post or share posts. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"The post said to avoid going to Fruiticana," said Jagdeep Kaur Gill. 

"We put up a post to rectify it. That one day business was slow and people were scared. When people post false rumours, not only does it affect business but also people's mental health," said Gill.

"They're scared and calling, asking if it's safe to come to the store. Once we put our post out and shared it, it made a huge difference. People needed assurance that it's safe," she said.

Gill says it shows how a rumour can have a negative effect on people's livelihoods.

Gill says she spotted another case of bad information this week, related to new guidelines from the provincial government around social gatherings.

"There was a prominent South Asian magazine that posted saying all non-essential businesses were closed and by the time I'd seen it people had already shared it, so rumour spreads very fast," said Gill.

Gill said that post was taken down and replaced with another post correcting the bad information.

"It's just wild how fast social media can spread rumours," said Gill.

Gill says people in the northeast should do their research and don't believe everything they read online.

She urges people stick to official websites and news sources to check for updated information.

About the Author

Dan McGarvey

Journalist

Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, only using an iPhone and mobile tech. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at: dan.mcgarvey@cbc.ca or tweet him @DanMcGarvey

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